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BACK TO BASICS: SEO Competitive Research, Part One: Methodology, Concepts and Terminology

BACK TO BASICS: SEO Competitive Research, Part One: Methodology, Concepts and Terminology

by: Bradley Leese, December 2005

Do you ever wonder how some competitors always manage to stay in the top ten while your rankings are constantly in flux? SEO competitive research can be defined as the study of competing websites to better evaluate how to improve keyword rankings. Applying a consistent methodology can accurately identify and measure most of the factors that search engines use to rank a web site. When this process is followed by data analysis and long term tracking, the results are progressively increased keyword rankings and consequently increased traffic. Learning how to determine what to do next becomes the habit of asking the right questions. This article is the first of an eight part series looking at each of the elements of effective competitive research. To give you an idea of where we're headed, let's take a look at the upcoming topics.

Very often a site owner is left asking, "What do I do when my rankings plateau? What am I doing wrong? Why is my site not in the top ten results?" These are great questions that most conventional answers fail to address, leading to frustration and limited success. However, when considered in the context of a complete methodology these questions become: "What are your competitors' doing right?"

Applying a complete methodology involves the comprehension of seven critical subjects: Identifying Competitors, Measurable Parameters, Tools and Techniques, Data Collection, Data Analysis, Site Strategy and Troubleshooting Techniques. Understanding each of these main subjects will help you to divide, conquer and stay on top for the long term. The real challenge is keeping top rankings after first acquiring them. Competitive research's real power resides in the ability to consistently evaluate what is required of a site to acquire and keep top rankings.

Identifying Competitors:

Know thy enemy. In search engines, the only real competitors are the sites that are ranking above and below you. Even if they sell different products and services, they are competing for the same search engine ranking. Don't discount anomalous sites that don't seem to fit; the reality is that the search engines have determined that they are relevant and therefore, so should you. Learn how to make a careful competitive analysis of the fiercest competitors and keep an eye on those pesky misfits.

Measurable Parameters:

All the major search engines: Google, Yahoo! and MSN claim that they have 100+ parameters that play an active role in how their algorithms evaluate a website. So why don't the engines just come out and say what these factors are and make our jobs a whole lot simpler? One word: Spammers. So what is a webmaster to do to get their site ranked in the absence of clear instructions on what is required? All search engines give you obvious clues about what they define as their major priorities, you just need to know where to look.

The critical first step is to define the playing field and all the parameters that search engines use to evaluate a site's success and failure. After you learn where you can go to get the most relevant information, a set of parameters can be determined. And while all it is impossible to know all elements, clarifying the core elements is entirely within your grasp.

Tools and Techniques:

Now you have a clear outline of all the information required to get your site highly ranked. With 100 possible parameters, how do you acquire that information quickly, consistently and efficiently? All search engines offer tools that are built into their engines that you can use to define the most basic elements, but what do you use when you want to get a larger perspective of the size and scope of a competitor's site? In this section, we will define the best free and paid tools on the internet to determine your competitors' ranking secrets.

Data Collection:

You now know how search engines differentiate the good from the bad and you have done the work to identify where you fit into the rankings puzzle. Unfortunately, this is not enough to keep your site consistently ranked. Maintaining high rankings requires that you constantly tweak and update your site. Getting and keeping rankings can be compared to trying to hit a moving target. Becoming a major competitor in your industry means that you must methodically keep records of rankings progress and the details of the changing landscape of search engines' site evaluation parameters. Learn how to consistently organize your data so that you can easily revisit your information days, weeks and months from now.

Data Analysis:

After extensive data collection, you will need to accurately identify rankings trends, track updates in individual search engines and monitor industry trends. The creation of parameter-specific reports will be critical to determine the success or failure of your search engine optimization campaign. Keeping tabs on your competitors will make or break your ability to clearly identify the constantly changing search engine parameter landscape.

Site Strategy:

After you have reviewed the data and drawn conclusions, you should have clearly identified the strengths and weaknesses of major competitors. It is time to make short and long term goals to overtake your competitors' rankings. Critical to a site's success are consistent adjustments and adaptations based on search engine updates. The combination of competitive research and site strategy is the active ingredient for the success of a keyword ranking campaign. The greatest challenge to improving rankings is to consistently complete the steps required within a set timeline. All your work will be in vain without establishing clear and attainable goals that are reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis.

Troubleshooting Techniques:

What do you do when after months of hard work some of your rankings still have not improved? Learn the troubleshooting techniques to diagnose and improve resistant ranking improvements. Follow a step-by-step process that you can adapt to your specific ranking needs. Learn how to define the not-so-obvious algorithm parameters and how to update your site strategy to address these required ranking requirements.

Next: Part Two, Identifying Competitors

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